David Bowie was the innovator

David Bowie, the singer, songwriter, producer and actor, died on Sunday at the age of 69, after an 18-month battle with liver cancer. He shared a birthday with Elvis Presley: January 8. Bowie, born David Robert Jones, in 1947 and Presley in 1935.

In 1966 the young David Jones changed his name to Bowie, after the American hero and his knife, to avoid being confused with Davey Jones of The Monkees.

Aladdin SaneFrom there Bowie had a string of singles that went nowhere in his native U.K.

It was in 1969 that the influential singer/songwriter got his first big hit: Space Oddity. The single charted in both Great Britain and the United States. To this day people still quote, misquote or paraphrase the lyrics, “Ground control to Major Tom.”

U.S. astronauts had just landed on the moon, an event that so transformed their lives it had an impact on Bowie.

He followed that album with The Man Who Sold the World and then Hunky Dory, featuring the song “Changes,” which increased Bowie’s profile in the public eye and garnered some critical success.

But it was his 1972 release, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars that brought Bowie to the forefront of the American audience. Most rock and roll listeners didn’t know what to make of the singer, who exploited his androgynous looks with skintight costumes, exaggerated makeup and brightly colored wigs and hair. It was too much for some people.

Bowie considered himself an actor, a performer, not just a singer/songwriter so his concerts were elaborate shows that ushered in the glam rock era.

Even though songs like “Ziggy Stardust” and “Suffragette” were getting heavy radio exposure, Bowie’s androgynous persona kept him a cult figure among the rock and roll crowd.

My sister and I saw him perform in 1973, while he was still doing the Ziggy tour. Initially put off by the effeminate appearance, the music and over all show pushed aside those discriminatory feelings and won me over as a fan.

It was no surprise when, years later, he teamed up with Queen for the hit, “Under Pressure.”

From Ziggy Stardust we were treated to Aladdin Sane that featured a number of hits: “Panic in Detroit” and “The Jean Genie” among them.

Then came Pin Ups, a collection of cover songs by such artists as Them, the Yardbirds, The Who and Pink Floyd, using a song written by Syd Barrett, “See Emily Play.”

David Bowie’s star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame Sunday evening. (shared on Facebook)
David Bowie’s star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame Sunday evening.
(shared on Facebook)

Diamond Dogs was released next, in 1974, and cemented Bowie in the permanent rotations of every classic rock station around the world. It featured the title track, “Rebel Rebel” and “1984.” He had wanted to make a theatrical production of the book, nineteen eighty-four, by George Orwell, but the Orwell estate declined to give him the rights, so several of those song became side two of Diamond Dogs.

That would be Bowie’s last album in the glam rock genre and it is noted as having introduced punk rock to the world.

Bowie would have many other albums to come, including three with Brain Eno — Low, Heroes and Lodger — that had completely different tones and moods than any of Bowie’s previous recordings.

But it was with Station to Station in 1976 that he introduced the character of the Thin White Duke, an anti-hero that idolized Adolph Hitler and suggested England become a fascist state. Bowie was deep into an addiction to cocaine at the time, and later said he was crazy and out of his mind in that period, due to his drug addiction. He lost a lot of fans due to his incoherent and objectionable statements.

So much followed, the collaboration with Queen, John Lennon (Fame),  Live Aid, and the critically rebuked (at the time) Glass Spider Tour that gave me my only opportunity to meet Ziggy Stardust, the Thin White Duke — David Bowie. The man had an extremely active mind, talking about different creative ideas that just were swimming in his head.

In between stupid questions about why Peter Frampton would be in the band (answered a hundred times before) and the criticism that the tour was too overblown and not about the music (again asked a hundred times). The music was about the show; it was in support of his album Never Let Me Down (sort of lost in the hoopla about the tour), but the tour was about the show and the music chosen was to support that artistic vision. No rock act had ever created a show and then fit the music to the show before. It was too different for the average rock/Bowie fan and even most critics. But Bowie was ahead of his time and now the Glass Spider Tour is celebrated as one of the best artistic rock shows ever.

From the Glass Spider tour (Wikipedia)
From the Glass Spider tour (Wikipedia)

What got me hyped was this part of the band: Peter Frampton, Carlos Alomar and Charlie Sexton all on guitar. Okay kids in the guitar class, pay attention, here is your clinic.

As with any concert tour, the sound quality depended on the venue. On September 10 and 11, 1987 the Glass Spider Tour descended upon the Marcus Amphitheater at the Summerfest grounds in Milwaukee. It was a great show, with music from his distant past and his future.

A lot of music followed, including his Tin Machine Era, which people either loved or hated (I thought both recordings were good), but in 1976 Bowie started his acting career in the movie, The Man Who Fell to Earth. He followed with Just a Gigolo, Christiane F, The Snowman, Baal, Yellowbeard and one of my favorites, Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence.

The vampire movie, The Hunger followed. My friend Claudia knows of David Bowie through his role in the Jim Henson movie, Labyrinth. She’s really never known him as a singer or stage performer.

That is the legacy of David Bowie. He has appealed to several generations of music and film fans.

He produced albums for Mott the Hoople, Iggy Pop, and Lou Reed, to name a few. David Bowie was everywhere, involved in some creative adventure. He even worked with John Lennon and Bing Crosby — and appeared on the Cher television program.

Bowie was a man of contradictions. At one time he claimed to homosexual, and then bi-sexual and then in 1992 he married the Africa-born Super model Iman. The Thin White Duke was just a character, not a secret persona of Bowie himself … or maybe it was a dark side of Bowie unleashed by the cocaine.

Bowie had lived in West Berlin for a while and shortly before President Reagan visited that divided city, during the Glass Spider Tour and game a concert close to the Berlin Wall. Riots erupted on the East side of the wall. From then until the wall’s fall in November 1989 East Berliners demonstrated, taking Bowie’s song and making it an anthem for their cause of ending the East German regime and the Wall. They took the lyrics seriously: “We can be heroes, just for one day.”

So the German Foreign Office tweeted:

Good-bye, David Bowie. You are now among . Thank you for helping to bring down the . https://youtu.be/YYjBQKIOb-w 

He appeared to love the attention of fame, but was a private person. H even turned down knighthood, saying it wasn’t something he ever wanted in life. No one says no to the queen — except David Bowie. But he was delighted to accept the award as the best dressed Brit. No to knighthood, yes to a fashion award. Go figure.

Bowie as Jack Celliers in the film, “Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence.”
Bowie as Jack Celliers in the film, “Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence.”

In 2002 he was asked by Blender magazine (which is now rolled into Maxim) if he still considered it a mistake to tell the world he was bisexual. Bowie responded, “Interesting. I don’t think it was a mistake in Europe, but it was a lot tougher in America. I had no problem with people knowing I was bisexual. But I had no inclination to hold any banners nor be a representative of any group of people. I knew what I wanted to be, which was a songwriter and a performer, and I felt that bisexuality became my headline over here for so long. America is a very puritanical place, and I think it stood in the way of so much I wanted to do.”

Bowie’s final gift to the world was his latest album, released for his birthday, Blackstar and the single, “Lazarus.” In a Facebook post, Bowie’s long time producer and friend, Tony Visconti wrote, “He always did what he wanted to do. And he wanted to do it his way and he wanted to do it the best way. His death was no different from his life — a work of Art. He made Blackstar for us, his parting gift. I knew for a year this was the way it would be. I wasn’t, however, prepared for it. He was an extraordinary man, full of love and life. He will always be with us. For now, it is appropriate to cry.”

David Bowie was a performer who was going to live forever, or so I felt. He still does though, through his music, films and other artistry (he was a painter as well). But it is a good time to cry.